How I run online learning during COVID-19 lockdown

In Sydney, NSW, we are currently in our second round of lockdown due to COVID-19. This means families are being asked to keep their children at home if they can and students are being taught remotely. For my school, we have decided that most of our remote teaching and learning will be conducted online on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’ve blogged about this in our first round of lockdown last year, but many have asked for more details so this post is to share how I set up my online classes. Note that these practices work for my students as many were already established routines (Google Classroom routines in particular) before online learning.

Every lesson is posted on Google Classroom

Even before online learning, I post every lesson on Google Classroom the day before the lesson. The lesson post would have the learning intention and success criteria for the lesson, the class activities we would be doing and all videos, slides, worksheets and other resources would be attached. This is so students can preview the lesson if they wish and it allows me to be more organised in class. At the start of a lesson, I put up Google Classroom on the interactive screen and everything is there.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

For online learning, I still do the same thing. However, instead of posting the lesson as a Materials post, I post it as an Assignment post with a due date as the day of the lesson. This is because an Assignment post with a due date will make it appear on a student’s Google Classroom homepage. At my school, we have a whole school process that every lesson is an assignment post with a due date and all lesson posts for the day need to be posted before 8:45 am. So when students log on in the morning, they can see a summary of all of their lessons for today. Most of our parents have also signed up to Google Classroom Guardian so making every lesson an Assignment post allows parents to receive a daily or weekly email summary of whether their child has submitted the required work.


In my online learning Google Classroom posts, I also include Zoom details if there is a live Zoom lesson so everything a student needs for that lesson is in the one Google Classroom post. Many students are already overwhelmed with suddenly transitioning to a completely new mode of learning, by themselves at home, so I try to minimise their need to click on too many different things and potentially getting lost.

An example of a Google Classroom post before online learning

Live Zoom lessons

I run live Zoom lessons for almost every lesson, but not all. My live Zoom lessons always start in the same way. Students are admitted into the meeting room at the start of the lesson where they will see a holding slide with today’s lesson outline or a quick quiz, depending on the class. The holding slide replicates our classroom whiteboard set up when we weren’t in lockdown so it offers a sense of familiarity. The slide has a YouTube countdown music timer clip so students know when the live instruction will begin. This allows three to five minutes for students to enter the room. The countdown video lets them know their audio is working. I also let them use these three to five minutes to use the Chat function to say hi to each other.

Holding slide for a Year 7 Zoom lesson
Holding slide for a Year 11 Zoom lesson

Zoom routines

In the first week of online learning, I teach my classes how they should behave on Zoom. We go through expectations and consequences so everyone has a shared understanding of how we act on Zoom.

An infographic of our Zoom lesson expectations

In the first week, I incorporate activities where students have many opportunities to practise our Zoom learning routines including:

  • raising their Zoom hand and waiting for me to ask them to unmute before speaking
  • having a choice of asking questions by raising their Zoom hand or in the Chat
  • using the Yes and No reactions in Zoom to respond to regular questions to check their understanding to determine if we can move on (I use to ask them to type in the chat, but using the Yes and No reactions is much more efficient as you can easily see a tally of who is saying Yes and who is saying No in the participant list)
  • expecting to be randomly selected to respond to questions (before online learning, I used Class Dojo for a ‘no hands up’ approach to responding to questions, which we have continued on Zoom)
  • taking turns to use the shared screen annotation features, which is particularly good for maths and chemistry

Integrating other apps

While the annotation tools and whiteboard on Zoom are sufficient for most of the activities we do, sometimes I find it easier to connect a second screen such as from a document camera or an iPad. I find an iPad with an Apple Pencil are really good tools. I particularly like the Microsoft Whiteboard app on the iPad with the Apple Pencil to teach maths and chemistry as it feels more like writing on paper and makes my digital handwriting neater.

An example of using the Microsoft Whiteboard iPad app with Apple Pencil, shared in a live Zoom lesson

We have also used Quizlet Live on Zoom to practise our vocabulary. I think playing synchronous games like Quizlet Live allows the class to maintain their relationships and enables them to have experiences they use to before lockdown. Running games like Quizlet Live or Kahoot via Zoom works better if students have a second device. So they will view the Zoom lesson on their laptop and play Quizlet Live on their phone or tablet.

Screenshot of a Quizlet Live game played on Zoom

Formative assessment

In face to face learning, a lot of my formative assessment and feedback processes happened with student interactions. This included checking their work books in class, speaking to them and being able to gather an overall sense of how they are going. Most of these practices require all of us to be in the same room and these have been the most challenging to pivot to online learning.

I don’t ask my students to take photos of their exercise books and upload it onto Google Classroom. I use to but found this practice to be unproductive and too time consuming for effective, timely feedback to occur. It also didn’t allow me to make adjustments to future lessons quickly enough. This is particularly important in maths as mastery of concepts are often required before moving on. So instead of asking students or post blurry photos of their work, I set quizzes every 2-3 lessons. For maths, I use Stile. While this platform is officially for science, I create maths quizzes in Stile because students can use their mouse or touch screens to easily write their working out and mathematical processes such as fractions that are difficult to type.

Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile
Screenshot of a maths quiz in Stile showing working out with a mouse or touch screen

Overall, I try to make online learning include as many live Zoom lessons as possible where they involve explicit teaching with lots of worked examples. Google Classroom routines are set up so it offers familiarity to students and allows them to access everything they need in one place, reducing cognitive load as much as possible. However some practices in face to face teaching have to be adjusted for online learning.

Launch into STEM – low prep and low cost projects to set up your students for success

I have a STEM class this year again. Yippee! The last time I had a STEM class was in 2019 and their first project was the cardboard games challenge, which I have previously blogged about. This year, my class is different (every class is different) and according to their pre-tests, needed more support in working effectively in teams and more guidance in designing fair investigations and communicating their findings. So we decided to dive into some mini challenges to launch into STEM, before settling into longer-term projects. The series of mini challenges are low prep, low cost, quick to do and are designed for students to consolidate the skills they need for more complex projects. The processes, scaffolds and success criteria are repeated with each mini challenge and are designed so there is a gradual release of responsibility.

This blog post contains an outline of each mini challenge and the resources I used. I used them with my Year 8 class, but they can be adapted to younger or older students. This post also contains a brief reflection on what worked well and what can be done differently.

Launch into STEM

Our project outline is shown in the graphic below.

Mini challenge one – rotocopters

The first mini challenge was rotocopters. This is a very easy challenge so students can focus on developing their skills to identify independent, dependent and controlled variables, selecting and using appropriate equipment to make measurements, using basic statistics to analyse results and writing an investigation report. When students have done this challenge once, they can start changing the design of the rotocopters to have it fall slower, spin faster, etc. To support students to brainstorm on ideas and negotiate on an agreed idea, we used a PMI chart.

I used the following scaffold and success criteria to help students design a fair investigation and to write an investigation report.

Mini challenge two – straw rockets

Our second mini challenge was straw rockets from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The NASA website has everything you and your students need, from written and video instructions on making the rockets to explanations on how rocket propulsion works. While this challenge seems easy, the extension opportunities are endless. We used the same scaffolds from the rotocopter challenge so students can get another go at improving their work. They can implement the feedback they got for the rotocopter challenge. For the air rockets, I introduced the following reflection questions for students to complete at the end of the challenge.

  • How much did you know about air rockets before this experiment?
  • What problems did you have with this experiment? This may include working in a team.What did you learn about yourself in this experiment? This may include working in a team.
  • Did you do your work the way other people did theirs? Explain.
  • What is one thing you would like to improve on if you did the experiment again?
  • If you were the teacher, what comments would you give to your work?

Mini challenge three – parachute challenge

Everything we did for the rotocopters and air rockets led to students being successful at this final challenge – to design a parachute for space exploration. Again, NASA has great resources for this. Check out their Eggstronaut Parachute Challenge.

We used the same processes, scaffolds and success criteria as the previous mini challenges. Students have done these processes twice and have received feedback twice. The parachute challenge is the time for them to become more independent learners. Instead of me pacing the students and releasing scaffolds as they are needed, students were given a project booklet and were allowed to pace themselves within a provided timeline.

Progress of learning – portfolio

When all three mini challenges were completed, each student had multiple samples of work from each challenge that showcase similar skills in designing fair investigations, communicating the results of investigations, and reflections on working in a team. Students can use these work samples to explain how they have grown over the term and how they implemented feedback to improve their work with each mini challenge.

So, what did the students think?

The class did an evaluation of the project. Here are some of their responses to what they liked most about the project.

I enjoy that we are given freedom in our projects to work creatively and not just writing in books.

I really love how our teacher is really understanding when it comes to our work because she does not pressure us like other teachers.

[I like] The rocket experiment, the parachute experiment and filling out the report.

What to do differently next time

Even though the project was designed so it accumulated to a portfolio in the end, many students ran out of time to document their learning progress. I also did not explicitly teach how to create a digital portfolio and articulate learning growth as well as I wanted to. Again the term got away from us.

Explanation texts is another aspect I would like to have taught more explicitly. Each mini challenge required students to explain the forces behind the rotocopter, air rocket and parachute and use forces to explain how their design changes worked. If I had my time again, I would have provided more scaffolding for students to express cause-and-effect relationships and how to move their writing from spoken-like to written-like.

5 things I’ve learnt to improve my online live lessons

In NSW, Australia, NSW public schools moved to a ‘learning from home’ model on 24 May 2020, due to increased restrictions to combat COVID-19. Parents were asked to keep their children at home if they could learn from home Overnight, we moved from face to face teaching to online remote teaching and learning. Like many other teachers, I started to experiment with using online meetings. This is what I have found to be useful.

1. Play around with different tools

I tested Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online live lessons with my classes. Overall, I prefer to use Zoom with my students for the following reasons:

  • Many of them already use it with family and friends.
  • Many of their parents use it so they know how to help if required.
  • It has breakout rooms that is easy to set up and use (more on this later).
  • It generates a meeting link that you can use over and over. I have this link as the top post on Google Classroom so it is easy to find for students. See here for instructions on how to create a link for recurring meetings.

For staff teams, I prefer Microsoft Teams for online meetings as it offers a more efficient experience. Microsoft Teams is the easiest to run an online meeting when you have everyone you need in your Team. You literally just click a button and voila! I like how Microsoft Teams allows for staff teams to be broken into smaller teams through Channels (Eg. Our Year 7 Middle School team has a main Microsoft Team and then the STEM teachers and Humanities teachers have their own Channels. If you run a science faculty for example, you can have all of your teachers in the main Channel and then break off smaller teams of teachers into their own Channels like a separate Channel for each Year 11/12 subject.) In those channels, teachers can easily run their own online meetings.

You can also collectively take notes while you have an online meeting in Microsoft Teams. We ran an executive meeting on Teams and notes were taken live during the meeting. Everyone can see the minutes being entered.

You can also schedule online meetings in Microsoft Teams, but it’s trickier than Zoom if you work in a NSW public school. The video below shows how to do it. It’s important to let colleagues know who is starting the live meeting. Otherwise you may have enthusiastic teachers going into Teams early and then starting the meeting and end up two different meetings happening simultaneously.

After a few weeks of testing, it’s important to discuss a whole school approach to online meetings and come to a consensus on which online meeting tool to use with students. This is particularly important in high school where a student can have up to 8 different teachers and it will be challenging for them to use a different online meeting tool for each teacher.

2. Keep online live lessons short

I like to keep online live lessons at around 20 to 30 minutes. Our school periods are 50 minutes and that is way too long in an online lesson environment. Think about the purpose of the online live lesson. If it’s to explicitly explain a concept (eg. how to add fractions with different denominators), then it is better to record a video rather than a live meeting. I like to use live meetings for welfare check-in’s, collaborative discussions and feedback; basically things that cannot be done effectively with a recorded video on online posts.

3. Use breakout rooms

I like to use breakout rooms in Zoom for students to have small group discussions (about 3 to 4 students). Breakout rooms are where you can send students into their own online meeting spaces and you as the teacher can ‘drop in’ and monitor each one. It’s the online version of separating students into smaller groups in a classroom and the teacher walking around. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in an online discussion and some are more willing to when they are in smaller groups. You can randomly assign students to breakout rooms or choose your own student groups.

Breakout rooms can also be done in Microsoft Teams.

4. Give students something to do while they are waiting

In a regular face to face classroom, I start every class with a quick quiz. This is for several reasons:

  • Retrieval practice – The questions I set requires them to remember content they have learnt in previous lessons, which helps them to consolidate the information into their long term memory.
  • Classroom management – As soon as students walk in, they have something to do. They have to unpack their equipment and they have to engage with the course work straight away. It allows me to manage students coming into the classroom at different times. Some may be coming from the classroom next door and others are walking from the other end of the school. The quick quiz mean I have a five minute window of ensuring everyone is on task and attentive. It’s a good crowd control strategy. I can also mark the roll.

An online live lesson is very similar to a face to face class. Some students will log on before you do. Others will log on a few seconds after you. And others will log in minutes later. I like to use the Polls feature in Zoom for retrieval practice. I usually do 3 to 5 multiple choice questions for them to do in Polls while I allow students into the meeting from the lobby.

I also like to use the Whiteboard feature to tell them they need to be answering the questions in Polls, list the meeting’s agenda, learning goals, etc.

5. Set and practise routines

An online live class needs to have learning routines and they need to be explicitly taught, just like in a face to face classroom. I like to start my online live classes the same way every time – the quick quiz in Polls and use the Whiteboard to communicate what we are doing in this online class (and tick them off as we go). Students know they have to use the hands up features to ask a question and they know when and why to use the chat. Some teachers like to disable the chat, but I like it. Yes, my students have used it to talk about irrelevant things, but 99% of the time they use the chat to help each other and alert me to technical issues (like the YouTube clip I’m trying to share is glitchy).

Overall, my students really value live online classes. I think they value the connection with each other and with their teachers. As we move into Term 2 where they may be a continuation with remote teaching or some sort, I would like my students to lead the online live lessons more. Have them share their screens and show their work or use breakout rooms where there is a student leader to facilitate the discussions.

Using knowledge organisers to support retrieval practice

Last year I started prototyping with teaching and learning strategies based on cognitive science. I was particularly interested in how to design and structure learning to support students to consolidate knowledge and skills into long term memory. Some of the things I did were:

This year I want to prototype knowledge organisers. A knowledge organiser is an A4 template that succinctly shows the reader (student/parent/teacher) what is essential to know for a particular topic. Knowledge organsers are not new. I’ve seen them on UK EduTwitter for a number of years but I think they are not that widely used in Australia. For a really good post on knowledge organisers, see Joe Kirby’s blog on how knowledge organisers are used at Michaela Community School.

For me I’m trialling knowledge organisers with my Year 7 maths/science class. I’ve made these knowledge organsiers so far for the introduction to high school science topic.

An image of a knowledge organiser for scientific processes
An image of a knowledge organiser for working safetly in the lab
An image of a knowledge organiser for laboratory equipment

This is how I’m going to use them:

  • Students to use the look cover check correct process to learn one section of the knowledge organiser at a time. Students choose one section of a knowledge organiser to focus on, read the information, cover that section, write what they remember, check their retrieved version with the knowledge organiser and then correct it with a different coloured pen. This will first be done in class and then moved to homework tasks. Students will receive a copy of the knowledge organisers in their homework folders so that their parents/carers know what they are learning at a glance and can use them to quiz their children.
  • Use the knowledge organiser to develop low-stakes quizzes. Students can also use the knowledge organiser to quiz each other.
  • Once students have practised using knowledge organisers in a range of ways and have these routines automated, retrieval practice using knowledge organisers can become the class work students do when the regular teacher is absent.

I make the knowledge organisers in PowerPoint. Click on this link to download the PowerPoint files and make a copy if you’d like to edit the knowledge organisers to suit your needs and the needs of your students.

Using escape rooms to launch the new school year

The new school year is about to start in Australia. This year my school is starting a new middle school initiative where Year 7 science, maths and some aspects of geography will be integrated and taught by the one teacher. And I am lucky to be one of these teachers. Since almost three subjects will be combined and taught by the one teacher, I will see my Year 7 class A LOT for a typical high school teacher. I’ve done this type of middle school/integrated curriculum before at my previous school and I always kick off the year with a project that allows each student learns about learning. This year the driving question for our first project will be ‘How can I learn effectively and achieve my personal best in maths and science?’

So I wanted a hook activity to launch the year and this project. It needs to be an activity that captures the excitement of the project (and the year’s learning) and allows me to see their existing group work skills. I played around with some ideas and thought an escape room will be good.

I have thought about escape rooms before but they seem to take a mammoth effort to create. But I thought I’d give it a go. I used the general guidelines from Bespoke ELA’s blog and was inspired by her use of Super Mario as the background story (Super Mario is one of my favourite video games series). I am using the introduction to Super Mario 3D as the background story for the escape room. If you haven’t got the time to view the video, the gist of the story is that Bowser has captured seven Sprixies (fairy-like creatures) and each time Super Mario and his pals complete a world, they rescue a Sprixie. For my escape room, a world will be a challenge and each time students complete a challenge, they rescue a Sprixie.

I also followed Bespoke ELA’s instructions on using Google Forms to create a digital escape room, using the section and validation features in Google Forms for students to enter codes to unlock rooms.

Screenshot of the introduction on Google Forms for my escape room activity. It features an embedded YouTube video for the introduction of Super Mario 3D to provide students with the background story.
The video for the background story for this escape room activity is embedded as YouTube video at the start of the Google Form.
Screenshot of a section of the escape room in Google Forms.
Students solve seven challenges. Each time they solve a challenge, they reveal a code to enter into the Google Form. The validation feature is used to check if the code they have entered is correct. If the code is correct, they proceed to the next room (next Google Form section).
Image showing a red Sprixie being rescued.
When students enter the correct code, they unlock a challenge and rescue on of the sprixies.

Students gain the code for each challenge by completing questions in small groups. The images below show each challenge. Challenge 1 was inspired by an activity in Stile, which currently has two online escape room activities. They are definitely worth checking out if you’re interested to see what other educational escape rooms can look like. I used Discovery Education Puzzlemaker to create some of the challenges.

Image showing challenge 1
Image showing challenge 2
Image showing challenge 3
Image showing challenge 4
Image showing challenge 5
Image showing challenge 6
Image showing challenge 7

All of the challenges are designed to be quite basic for this particular escape room as the purpose is to see how a group of new Year 7 students work together after knowing each other for a few days. However, escape rooms can be used as retrieval practice activities. I am planning to use this same escape room structure for my Year 12 classes, but have sample and past HSC exam questions in the challenges.

Have you created or used escape rooms before? How did you find them?

3 drama games that all teachers can use

In NSW, Australia, teachers, children and young people are getting ready for another year of school. Like many teachers, I like to kick off the year with some ice breaker and team building games. I like to think of my classes as learning communities and for my students to learn how to effectively work with each other, they need to know each other (I’m a science and STEM teacher so many activities involve group work and group projects).

A few years ago, I did team teaching with a drama and dance teacher and was amazed at how well her classes worked together, in a level I have not experienced my science classroom. In these drama and dance classes, students worked productively together. They weren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of each other. They knew how to support each other. They were attuned to each other. I initially thought maybe these classes were just composed of students who were already good friends which is why the group dynamics were so good. But the drama/dance teacher assured me A LOT of work goes into building group dynamics. So I’ve been looking into drama games that would work well in non-drama classes as ALL classes would benefit from developing from students who work well with each other, who empathise with each other, who trust each other and respect each other.

Catch my name – This game helps the class learn each other’s names. Students sit in a circle and a soft object like a small bean bag is thrown to students. The thrower says their name and throws it to another student who says their name when they catch it and throw it to the next student. In subsequent rounds students will need to say their own name and the student’s name they throw the object to. I found this game on Drama Toolkit, where a more detailed description of the game can be found.

Group walks – These are activities that build students’ physical awareness. While such drama games are targeted at developing actors’ awareness of each other’s physical presence on stage, it can also be beneficial for non-drama classes. Being taught to be physically aware of each other’s presence can help students work and learn effectively in large spaces like science labs or open learning spaces. A simple version of this game is to have students walk around in a large space slowly doing various movements like hopping and they need to make sure they don’t bump into each other. Variations and progressions of this game can be found in this blog post.

Count to 20 – I really like this game. As a class, students have to start counting from 1 to 20. Only one student can speak at a time. Any student can start counting and any student can continue the following numbers. However, there is no verbal coordination of who speaks first or next. If two or more students end up saying a number then the class starts from 1 again. See here for a detailed description of the game.

I really like how these games intentionally teach students to work productively as a team. Almost all teachers and all subjects require students to work effectively as a class. These games can be one way of deliberately teaching these skills.

Using Ozobots in the science classroom

I’ve been interested in using Ozobots in my science lessons ever since I saw this tweet of Ozobots being used to model different types of eclipses.

I really liked how the Ozobots were being used to create a moving model of eclipses, which is quite difficult to do without coded robots that automatically move (I have never found children holding basketballs and moving around another child holding a torch work well).

This term our school got hold of some Ozobots through the STEMShare initiative and I was able to test out how Ozobots can be used to enhance students’ understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Matter cycles through ecosystems, particularly the nitrogen cycle, can be quite difficult to conceptualise. Common activities include showing students diagrams of the nitrogen cycle, videos and getting students to physically model the cycle by pretending to be nitrogen particles themselves. However, just like eclipses, Ozobots provide an opportunity for students to create an annotated moving model to better visualise the processes.

So last Friday, my Year 9s used Ozobots to create a narrated video explanation of the nitrogen cycle with the Ozobot acting as a nitrogen particle. Here’s one of the videos.

The videos were created in an 80 minute lesson. What I really liked about using the  Ozobots was that it gave students the opportunity to work in teams and talk to each other about the nitrogen cycle. They worked in teams of 2 to 3 students draw the map, negotiate the narration and film the video. The activity gave them an opportunity to test and clarify their understanding of the nitrogen cycle with each other. The activity allowed students to determine if they really understand the nitrogen cycle. Prior to this, we had already done many other activities of the nitrogen cycle (worksheets, question and answer sessions, quizzes) and many students were confident they understood the nitrogen cycle. However, when it came to creating the narrated video with the Ozobots, many found that they didn’t know the nitrogen cycle as well as they thought they did.

Next time, I would also ask students to create a map so that the Ozobot wouldn’t be travelling in a nice unidirectional cycle but back-and-forth through different components of the ecosystem.

Routines to kick off a lesson

I’m big on learning routines. I’m a strong believer that predictable lessons that follow a similar structure every time allows students to learn more effectively. I started at a new school last term and learning routines have been particularly important in establishing my expectations with my students.

I always start the lesson in the same way. Every lesson kicks off with a “Quick Quiz”. For most of my classes, the Quick Quiz involves me writing three to four sentences on the board with missing words (key vocabulary or concepts for the topic). These sentences are based on the concepts of the previous lessons or topics. The Quick Quiz is always on the board before students enter the classroom. As soon as they enter the room, they have to copy and complete the quiz. The quiz takes about 5 minutes to complete. I’ve been doing the Quick Quiz in 3 different schools now and have found it to be effective. I really like the Quick Quiz routine because:

  • Students are regularly revising the key concepts.
  • It’s a great settling routine. It encourages students to take out their equipment immediately as they enter the classroom.
  • It gives me sufficient time to do administrative tasks like mark the roll, check uniforms, lend pens to students who need them and settle students who need additional assistance.
  • It’s accessible to all students. If they don’t know the missing words, they can still copy the sentences. I also encourage them look back in their books to search for the answer if they don’t know.
  • It’s a form of formative assessment. I end the Quick Quiz by randomly selecting students to provide their answers (I have a no hands up rule for answering questions and use the Randomly app to select students to answer). It lets me gauge how well they have remembered the key concepts from previous lessons.
  • I have had to adjust the Quick Quiz routine at my new school for my Year 9 class who told me they found the filling in missing words too easy. The limitations of using a cloze passage style quiz is that it mainly allows revision of key terms and concepts based on recall. So I’ve changed the Quick Quiz for Year 9 to be on a worksheet with a combination of multiple choice questions, cloze passages and open ended questions. I place the worksheets near the door so as the enter the classroom, they take a worksheet and complete it. I still use the Randomly app to randomly select students to give the answer to each question. So far the Year 9s have said they prefer the worksheet version of the Quick Quiz.
  • This version of the Quick Quiz requires more effort and preparation from me and I don’t think I’d be able to do this for all of my classes on a long term basis. But so far it has worked really well for Year 9s.
  • How do you start your lessons? Do you have lesson starter routines that you find particularly effective?
  • Using exams as formative assessment

    Exams are often seen as summative assessment. From my experience, students often seen exams as high stakes and only want to know their grade. The most common question students ask me when they get their exams back is “Did I pass?”. Most of them don’t seem to be interested in using exams as a way to know where they are at and how they can improve. So I wanted to do something different to encourage my students to see exams as one way of them knowing how they are progressing and a window into what they should do to improve. I also wanted them to use exams as an opportunity to reflect on their revision strategies.

    I stumbled across exam wrappers and decided to implement it with my Year 9s. My Year 9s just finished their half yearly exams. When I returned their papers, I also got them to use an exam wrapper and a Dedicated Reflection and Improvement Time process to facilitate the processing of feedback and self reflection. Overall, this strategy was very well received by students. Many of them were able to identify the syllabus components they need to focus on and revision strategies to try next time. It also gave me, as their teacher, an insight into how they studied and how I can explicit teach revision strategies to them.

    Here’s what my exam wrapper and DIRT feedback looked like with links to editable versions of both documents.

    exam wrapper

    DIRT feedback

    Links to editable file

    STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


    Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
    For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

     1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

    Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

    2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

    Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

    3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

    Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

    What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education?